Defenders of U.S. “global leadership” sometimes concede that Washington has overextended itself, pursued foolish policies, failed to achieve its stated foreign-policy aims, and violated its avowed political principles. They see such actions as regrettable aberrations, however, and believe the United States will learn from these (rare) mistakes and act more wisely in the future. Ten years ago, for example, political scientists Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth acknowledged that the Iraq War was a mistake but insisted that their preferred policy of “deep engagement” was still the right option for U.S. grand strategy. In their view, all the United States had to do to preserve a benign world order was maintain its existing commitments and not invade Iraq again. As former U.S. President Barack Obama liked to say, we just need to stop doing “stupid shit.”
George Packer’s recent defense of U.S. power in the Atlantic is the latest version of this well-worn line of argument. Packer opens his essay with a revealingly false comparison, claiming that Americans “overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between, where an ordinary country would try to reach a fine balance.” But a country that still has more than 700 military installations worldwide; carrier battle groups in most of the world’s oceans; formal alliances with dozens of countries; and that is currently waging a proxy war against Russia, an economic war against China, counterterror operations in Africa, along with an open-ended effort to weaken and someday topple the governments in Iran, Cuba, North Korea, etc., can hardly be accused of excessive “retrenchment.” Packer’s idea of that “fine balance”—a foreign policy that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right—would still have the United States tackling ambitious objectives in nearly every corner of the world.
Unfortunately, Packer and other defenders of U.S. primacy underestimate how hard it is for a powerful liberal country like the United States to limit its foreign-policy ambitions. I like the United States’ liberal values as much as anyone, but the combination of liberal values and vast power makes it nearly inevitable that the United States will try to do too much rather than too little. If Packer favors a fine balance, he needs to worry more about directing the interventionist impulse and less about those who are trying to restrain it.
Why is it so hard for the United States to act with restraint? The first problem is liberalism itself. Liberalism begins with the claim that all human beings possess certain natural rights (e.g., “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). For liberals, the core political challenge is to create political institutions strong enough to protect us from each other but not so strong or unchecked as to deprive us of these rights. However imperfectly, liberal states accomplish this balancing act by dividing political power; holding leaders accountable through elections; enshrining the rule of law; protecting freedom of thought, speech, and association; and emphasizing norms of tolerance. For true liberals, therefore, the only legitimate governments are those that possess these features and use them to safeguard each citizen’s natural rights.
Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.